Sunday, 5 February 2012

Liza Dalby: The First Western Geisha

I have long been a fan of Liza Dalby's books. They are entertaining and interesting as well as very informative and have provided me with great inspiration in my study of Japanese and Japanese culture. I first encountered her books when, enchanted by the story of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha,  I read Geisha in the hope of discovering the real flower and willow world. At college, while writing an essay about kimono, Dalby's book Kimono: Fashioning Culture proved invaluable. Later her fictional biography of Murasaki Shikibu inspired me to take on the sizeable task of reading the classic The Tale of Genji. By the time that her fourth book, East Wind Melts the Ice, was published I was a confirmed fan and snapped it up.

Dalby first visited Japan as a teenager in the 1960s. She stayed for a year with a family in Saga City on the southern island of Kyūshu becoming the first foreign student of Saga University. At the time she knew only basic Japanese and though she eventually became fluent, the experience must have been a difficult one. It was whilst living in Saga that she heard a shamisen (a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument) being played and fell in love with its enchanting sound. Her host family organised lessons with a local
nagauta (lit. 'long song', a type of traditional Japanese music) teacher where she began to study the instrument.

On returning to America Dalby studied Anthropology at Swarthmore College though she spent her third year back in Japan attending Sophia University in Tōkyō and studying zen at Daitokuji, a large Buddhist temple in Kyōto. After graduation she continued her studies at Stanford University during which time she conducted research in a small fishing village on an island in Japan's Inland Sea. Her dissertation subject took her back to Japan to study geisha and their place in the modern society of Japan.

Dalby as geisha Ichigiku
After living amongst the geisha of Kyōto for six months earnestly conducting interviews and research Dalby's adopted geisha family felt that she was serious enough about her work to experience the teahouse parties herself. This is how she came to make her debut as the geisha Ichigiku, the first westerner to be afforded such a privilege. Her study of the shamisen proved invaluable as she performed and entertained at Pontochō teahouses alongside her geisha sisters. It is this PhD research that formed the basis for the book Geisha in which she writes about her experiences and findings. As well as providing fascinating insight into the rituals and traditions of the 'floating world' the book tells the story of Dalby's struggle for acceptance and the initial difficulties that she encountered in penetrating the closed community.

During her time as a geisha Dalby learnt a lot about the subtleties and rules of kimono along with their history inspiring her to write her second book.  Kimono: Fashioning Culture explains the many different items that make up the elegant ensembles, the seasonal variations in colour and patterns and the subtle signifiers that indicate the wearers status and age. The book provides an invaluable and thorough introduction to Japan's national dress.

Later, inspired by the stories of the Heian court that she had come across during her research and her love for The Tale of Genji, Dalby wrote her first novel based on the life of the book's author, Murasaki Shikibu. Her fourth book East Wind Melts the Ice collects together anecdotes and tales from her fascinating life split between Japan and California organised around her own version of the traditional Japanese almanac. The stories explore the integral part that the seasons play in all aspects of Japanese culture and the importance that is placed on observing their changes. Recently Dalby has produced a second novel, Hidden Buddhas.

I would recommend Liza Dalby's books to anyone that is interested in Japanese culture, not only are they well-researched and highly informative but they are interesting and enjoyable to read in a way that many academic texts are not. Her own personal insight, experiences and understanding make them a pleasure to read.

For more information about Liza Dalby and her books please visit or the links below.

Kimono: Fashioning Culture

The Tale of Murasaki

East Wind Melts the Ice:
 A Japanese Almanac

Hidden Buddhas



uniblue registry booster

私は日本語で書くことはできませんし、Googleは私のためにそれをやった :)

Post a Comment